When I'd checked my coat the place was empty; I couldn't see all the way inside, but I could tell. There was little vibration coming from within.
"I wonder," I spoke surrendering the length of my coat. "There's a scarf in the sleeve -- did you see a lone guy come in here? Bad skin."
"There's someone at the bar," she said handing me a plastic number. "But I didn't notice his skin."
"Ok. How `bout the ladies room?"
Over a stainless steel cone, I shook the water off my hands and flirted with the mirror to assess myself with a practiced distraction. There it was, the deliberate smear of good cosmetics that seldom needed re-application -- and that achingly familiar look one gives oneself at 32. If this had been an introduction I would not have been able, if asked, to guess correctly the color of my own eyes. Because of these disconcerting, mildly- educational thirties-things that have happened to my body, which make me careful to only sleep with a peer, I turned my back on myself, leaving without self-acknowledgment.
I set out for the bar, taking deep conscience-cleansing breaths before filling the stool beside him and revealing my Amex in one fluid movement, like an actress in a favorite role. As soon as I crossed my legs he started to jiggle the ice in his vodka.
"What's that?" I pointed into his glass. I wanted to be sure he was drinking. Usually the exquisite tension of our lost love filled the spaces completely, like deep breaths. We found each other's company when searching for renewal, but it was like reliving a plot in a movie whose ending you already know. Tonight we faced each other in the uneasy state of everyday failing in our respective marriages; we began almost at once crunching ice between our worn complaints and sour disillusionments.
He'd just come from some chic salon and cocked his colorful high-and low-lights like a bird; it had been years since he'd shorn his inspiring Rapunzle mane and I shouldn't have been so rudely distracted by what was no longer there. But I was, enough for him to squeeze some of my thigh pressing against his knee and call me "fleshy."
Still, neither of us had crossed the other completely off the list.
We moved to the lounge to order; he had the sea bass on a bed of spinach and lemon slices and I chose a Caesar salad playing Russian roulette with Salmonella to roil his stomach for fun. He couldn't even watch me eat it and so I got bored with it and left my well-picked-over plate beside me on the reproduction fainting couch. I had not survived the complicated arrangements to meet only to endure his recitation of the purported physical benefits to my trading carbs for protein. But, I'll take one of those Nat Sherman's, thank you.
When he put down his fork he took a deep breath and pronounced a cut-off time. Normally I would enjoy the irony of his attempt at self-discipline -- finding endless amusement in how effortlessly I could cause him to break his own rules. This evening however, I was without the sweet apprehension to dread its end. There was disinterest and clarity where there once had only been an invitingly muddy vortex. It was like arriving at an amusement park with a strip of tickets only to find your favorite ride under construction; I felt off course.
I can only stay out till such-and-such, he'd assured. Their cats had urinary problems that had been keeping him in the apartment monitoring excrement for a week. Last Tuesday his wife had come home with an animal communicator and the usually unaffected kitties began to circle with immediate interest, excited to have a translator. The group gathered in the living room amid the cluster of bordello-looking floor lamps that were trying hard to be a serious collection. Here the feline brothers were able to voice their opinions on a myriad of issues. His wife busied herself taking notes and collecting food and toys from various rooms for a pass-or-fail grade. I'd be thrilled too, I suppose, for the opportunity to be so sure of everything.
"They seemed very clear," he told me, "on what they wanted to eat, what was helping them and what they would rather do without."
"Well, aren't you?" Frankly, I didn't really know what to say.
"She told us, the animal communicator, that Willow, the bigger cat, is my creative partner and he's the one who helps me catch the music."
"There goes my name from the liner notes." *
Sitting down again -- having side-stepped between his knees and a low table -- I mentioned, "By the way, the bathroom stall's full door locks with a deadbolt." But my suggestion was intercepted by a waitress in a slinky dress who'd slid her tray beneath her breasts and in front of his chin to ask if she could help him with a selection. Dessert? His head bobbed from me to her to me. I sat back to better frame the shot and through a plume of blue cigarette smoke hinted to her with a casual note that her tip relied on my generosity not his.
"Proprietary, not jealous -- I remember," he laughed his little self-satisfied laugh that made his lip curl like a surprised window shade.
"She's cutting into my time," I said, when she bent-over again to relieved her little tray of our drinks.
Shamelessly enlivened by her plastic surgery, he asked, "Have you seen the Pamela-Tommy video."
"Got it as a gift."
"I understand it is very beautiful. Lots of posing. And from what I heard they should be so proud."
"Well, you knew that."
"Well, actually, no. What made you think I would?"
"I just -- well, in your travels; you did spin in that circle for a while."
"As did you." I reposted over the plop and sizzle of a doused cigarette. "There's one of Aric and I -- somewhere." I tricked the conversation back my way.
"Who has it now?"
"Couldn't say. When he died no one would let me back in to pick up the pieces of me."
"I didn't realize he was into that?"
"I'm sure he felt it a job requirement -- who knows? At the time I was too young to realize I should be paying better attention."
"Young, but not inexperienced," he teased.
"To your eventual advantage, if I remember your face as clearly as I think I do."
"What do you think would have happened if we'd gotten married?" he asked the ceiling. "You think we would have made it?"
I wasn't drunk enough to completely ignore his floundering about how to get home. "Share a cab with me or don't," I shrugged, tipping less than I would have naturally which felt more dangerous than anything else I'd done this evening. I fingered around my bag for the plastic numeral I would have set aside if forethought had ever been my strong suit.
I dragged my coat over the counter and wrapped myself up in its generosity, closing him out -- viewing hours were over. In the street I stopped the first yellow thing I saw.
Sliding into the open mouth of the Mid-town tunnel I was aware he was talking but I had too many other ideas to index. When we stopped on his corner I realized, if I'd chosen to acknowledge an almost imperceptible hesitation, I could have followed him upstairs. But I didn't. And my decision only concerned me in that this inaction might weaken the link -- diminish the current. Regardless, some fish will always swim upstream.